Fes – some history

In Morocco, medina simply means “city”. And, Fes or Fez has two: the Fes-el-Djedid (new), built in the 14th century and Fez-el-Bali (old), which was built towards the end of the late eighth century.

Our guide, Nadia, met us at about 10 a.m. and we started the day by driving to the Jewish Quarter (Mellah district) and the Royal Palace.

Before entering the old Medina, we drove to a couple of high viewpoints with expansive views of the city and hills beyond.

Back to Fez-el-Bali, and entering through the blue gate (Bab Boujeloud) we stepped back in time. Built with (we were told 9,999) winding narrow alleyways, the walk through the Medina is fascinating – a complicated labyrinth built to thwart invasions. This city remains a picture of medieval Islamic society set in modern times. Muslim women, especially in Fez’s past, had the tradition of keeping their faces covered from all males except family. Patios were built with high walls, which resulted in making the alleyways dark, but cool in the scorching summer months. Narrow winding streets make bicycles, donkeys and mules the chosen means of transportation. There are over 300 mosques within the Medina, many of them with Madrassas (schools) attached.

Blue Gate

Built by the first Muslim Dynasty, (Idriss I was a direct descendent of Mohammed) the Idrissids, the medina sits on the banks of the Fez River. Locals claim that the Kairouiyine Mosque, constructed during the reign of Yahya ibn Muhammed, is one of the oldest in Africa. In 859, the University of Karueein, as it is now called, was officially founded, giving the Fez Medina one of the oldest universities in the world.

Refugees arrived from Andalusia in 817-18 and brought their artistic skills followed shortly thereafter by refugees from Tunisia, and Jews. Today, people originating from Fez tend to have lighter skin tones, blond hair, and even green and blue eyes.

Throughout Fez’s long history, the leadership of the city often marked its personality. In 1069 the Almoravid Sultan, Youssef ibn Tachfin succeeded in conquering the city and is credited with erecting a 17km perimeter wall around what was previously two separate two cities. In 1170, Fez was the largest city in the world with a population of over 200,000. It was an important trading hub, serving Africa and Europe, on the gold route from Timbuktu, and known for the famous tanneries with their fine reputation for making leather shields.

One of  Fes’s oldest landmarks is a water clock, built by timekeeper, Abu al-Hassan Ibn Ali Ahmed Tlemsani, in 1357 to mark the correct times for the call to prayer.

Known as Magana Bouanania, the water clock holds behind its wooden design and sculpture the secret of one of the oldest and most unique ways to tell time which puzzled scientists for centuries. Consisting of 13 windows and platforms carrying brass bowls, the clock was driven by a small cart, which ran from left to right behind its beautifully carved twelve doors. The cart was attached to a rope with a hanging weight at one end, while at the other end, the cart was attached to a rope with a weight that floated on the surface of a water reservoir. Every hour, one of the doors would open and a metal ball dropped into one of the twelve brass bowls, while rafters stuck out of the building above the doors supported a small roof to protect the doors and bowls. Unfortunately, Magana Bouanania has been out of operation for four centuries.

Kairouiyine Mosque

A beautifully renovated caravanseri (before and after)

Some doors of Fes.

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